Parties swing across the globe

Foundations of Comparative Politics
November 24, 2006

Foundations of Comparative Politics is a new work with a companion website ( www.cambridge.org/newton ). It aims to cover the whole field but not the whole world. It is in a way less comparative than it might be - it confines itself to democratic states. Although there are some exiguous observations on the challenges faced by such polities, it offers little in the way of globalisations or civilisations, clashing or otherwise. The need to set some bounds to a boundless inquiry is entirely understandable, but there is perhaps a slight sense that the authors are more comfortable with people (or states) like us.

The text is explicitly introductory, at times almost elementary. The material is clearly presented and plainly expounded, in bite-size chunks, with meticulous signposting and summarising. Student-friendly features abound: "briefings" (helpful extracts from other texts, pegged to a famous phrase or saying or idea - "two concepts of liberty", "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"); "controversies" (a rather less successful variant of briefings - "the price of security"); "fact files" (potted data on such things as "The Treaty of Westphalia"); an extensive glossary; and the usual apparatus of selected websites (very helpful) and annotated bibliographies (a little behind the times on the latest editions, and excessively textbookish, with an admixture of surprisingly advanced work). Most of the foregoing is online, together with a battery of multiple-choice "review questions" ("According to Aristotle a state is...").

Each chapter concludes with a shortlist of suggested "projects". Some of these pose very appropriate questions that could easily inform seminar discussion: "Why has it been so difficult to adopt a constitution for the European Union?" Others, expressed in the language of the old-fashioned school room, display a fascination with categorisation unlikely to enthuse even the most dedicated: "Collect a list of all the main political parties in your country and try to arrange them into the seven main categories discussed in this chapter. What difficulties do you meet in trying to classify your parties, and why do you think your country produces parties that do not fit the scheme?" Others again seem more like tasks for the luckless bureaucrats covered in chapter seven: "Make a list of the terrorist actions in the world since 2000. What was the main objective of these actions? Which countries - if any - were involved in these actions and what was their main role (victim, supporter, opponent, mediator)?"

The text itself is marvellously sensible. Given the morass of issues thrown up in the realm of comparative politics, this is quite a feat, but it is a double-edged one. Apart from a studied optimism about the staying power of the state, there is very little here that is controversial, or exciting, or arresting. A textbook is not a thriller; still, it needs to hook the reader, to stimulate, to captivate and even perhaps to entertain. Foundations of Comparative Politics is built to last. It is safe and staid. It lacks only zing.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Foundations of Comparative Politics: Democracies of the Modern World. First Edition

Author - Ken Newton and Jan W. van Deth
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 402
Price - £45.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 82931 3 and 53620 0

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